I was leaving Singapore which had been "home" for the previous 10 months and had asked the teller at the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank on Collyer Quay for the balance of my account in the form of a sterling draft. A little surprised, I was told that a manager would see me shortly and I was duly ushered into a rather plush interview room wondering what could possibly be amiss. My account was worth £360 in sterling which, using the retail price index, equates to £2,400 in 2013, so hardly a fortune.
The Chinese manager was puzzled - I lived in Chong Pang, an area popular with the Australian Armed Forces personnel and their families, the last of whom had just returned home after the fall of Saigon - but he was most concerned for my financial wellbeing. Sterling! Surely a mistake. The UK was a country wracked by industrial disputes, balance of payments problems, would not, or was most unlikely to defend the value of its currency and another sterling crisis was simply a matter of time. Explaining that I wasn't an Australian and my work meant that I had to return to England, I accepted his sympathy and advice that I should take in sterling only what I needed until my next pay day and the balance would be a draft made out in Deutschmarks to be honoured in due course.
Seen from afar, Britain's reputation on a number of fronts was not of the highest during the 1970s and up close, the perforced candlelit dinners my wife and I shared in our needlessly cold Portsmouth flat during the "Winter of Discontent", only brought further uncomfortable confirmation that much was amiss with the country. The BBC's History website sums up the situation neatly:
"Industrial action by petrol tanker and lorry drivers was followed by hospital ancillary staff, ambulance men and dustmen going on strike. Hospitals were picketed, the dead left unburied, and troops called in to control rats swarming around heaps of uncollected rubbish. The large number of simultaneous strikes, the violence and perceived mean-mindedness of the picketing (which included the turning away of ambulances) created a sense of alarm in the electorate about the decline in British society."
It is ironic that Labour's Prime Minister James (Jim) Callaghan, a devoted trades union advocate, should have been defeated by the very actions of the union movement that he had done so much to champion all his political life. Mr Callaghan was seen at times by colleagues and members of his Cabinet to put the interests of the unions before all else. This at a time when the trades union movement was headed by increasingly militant leaders like Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, nicknamed "The Terrible Twins" for their opposition to attempts by both Conservative and Labour governments to restrict union power and reforms. In a January 1977 poll by Gallup, 54 per cent of those asked said that Jack Jones was the most powerful man in the country, hardly a ringing endorsement of democracy, irrespective of the party in power.
Following on from that winter of the unburied dead during which 29.2 million working days were lost due to strike action, the Conservatives under the leadership of Mrs Margaret Thatcher were returned to power after the General Election of 03 May 1979 with an overall majority of 43. Under Mrs Thatcher, the Conservatives went on to win the two subsequent General Elections. That of 09 June 1983 saw the Party increase its majority to 144 due to the drubbing Labour took under the leadership of Michael Foot and on 11 June 1987, although not as spectacular a victory, the overall majority was still a very comfortable 102. In a multi-party system where getting more than 50 per cent of the popular vote is nigh impossible, the "Iron Lady" must have been getting matters broadly right for the country's largest minority of voters.
Where Mrs Thatcher differed from previous administrations of both parties was her willingness to take risks by pursuing policies that would be uncomfortable at best and often down right unpopular, implementing them early on and hoping that the gamble would pay off in the longer run. One such, was the phasing out, relatively quickly, of subsidies to nationalised industries, actual or de facto like British Leyland (cars), which inevitably, very quickly increased the level of unemployment.
The main reason why the state owned a significant part of the British economy had been due to Labour's policy of nationalisation which was implemented after their sweeping victory in 1945. Much of what was taken under state control was in the older, heavier industries which were often concentrated in the likes of South Wales, Northern England and Central Scotland, however both major political parties after the end of World War II had maintained a policy of appeasing the trade unions and maintaining high levels of employment. When these state enterprises made losses, they were either given subsidies, grants or loans which on many occasions were later simply written off.
Over time, industries threatened by bankruptcy or closure with large workforces were taken under the state's umbrella and this happened with the Steel and Shipbuilding firms to mention but two. Effectively, this meant that the state owned a variety of businesses in most sectors of the British economy and employed a large proportion of the workforce, one cocooned from any competition and where to close a loss making plant meant unemployment and a political cost. Losses suffered through the inefficiency of management, methods, accounting or marketing skills, or the irresponsibility of the employees due to the likes of strike action, go-slows or work-to-rules, were simply covered by the taxpayer.
Management, even when this was of high quality, found it difficult to modernise or innovate being hampered by the fact that being state owned, their ability to raise capital was severely restricted, not least because their budgets were competing for funding with every other government department - "the external financing limit which covers the total recourse to Government funds from any sources".
Looking now at some of the businesses that were state owned in whole or part, one is left wondering why many of these were nationalised in the first place. Why does a government want to own a bus company or a sugar company! Can politicians really run car manufacturing, or an airline, or petroleum companies? And taken all together, this state-owned sector lost a fortune for the taxpayer to pick up. In a House of Lords debate in 1983 discussing the Government's relationship with the nationalised industries, the late Lord Harris of High Cross pointed out: "...in the 10 years from 1970 to 1980, the net revenue of the nationalised sector taken together was about £25,000 million less than its total payroll...".
Mrs Thatcher is often accused by the Left of having destroyed British industry and manufacturing and this is untrue. The very simple fact is that before she ever came to power the UK was uncompetitive in too many spheres of industry. Studies, Reports and Enquiries, not always government sponsored, are littered with quotes concerning Britain's industrial/manufacturing base like: "complacency about running operations below capacity and so at low efficiency"; "outdated technology"; "employment artificially high"; "late delivery"; "workforce sticking stubbornly to traditional ways of working". Although this did not apply in every field of industry, thankfully, it more often than not applied to the older manufacturing parts and the nationalised industries. The politicians of all parties knew it as did most of the public. Britain's leaders would simply not bite a bullet.
Unemployment by 1979 was already seen as historically high at 5.3 per cent. Having been elected to reverse Britain's decline, as much as the knock-on effect of the Winter of Discontent, Mrs Thatcher's "remedies" made a rise in the level of unemployment and therefore a battle with the trades unions almost inevitable and the unemployment rate rose to 9.5 per cent within two years of the Conservatives coming to power. Often forgotten in the blame game for the ensuing higher, long-term levels of unemployment which would peak at 12 per cent in May 1984, is the fact that the previous Labour administration, using wage/price controls and the like, had been addressing the issue during the terms of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. Much of the subsequent Conservative legislation was simply adopted and adapted. The original template for much of the Conservative trade unions and employment reform legislation was more than likely Barbara Castle's 1969 white paper, "In Place of Strife".
Giving credit where it is due, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan did care about Defence and also did a very great deal to enhance relationships between Britain and the USA. Yes, of course the two countries had been allies but there had been little of a "special relationship". America was anti-colonial and saw all the big European nations in this sort of light, there had been Suez which still rankled with many older Conservatives, the UK had not given America its support in Vietnam except in a peripheral manner. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and President Jimmy Carter became good friends and this in turn paid off dividends to both countries in fields like technology transfer for future administrations.
Mrs Thatcher is probably most famous for taking on Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984/85, but now curiously less remembered is the fact that she was hardly through the door of No 10 when she picked up where the previous lot had virtually feared to tread to take on the unions in Britain's ailing car industry. John Griffin in the Birmingham Mail on 08 April 2013 reminded his readers of the time when British Leyland at Longbridge was the HQ of Derek Robinson ("Red Robbo"), communist shop steward and union convenor, who for years previously, had led strike campaigns throughout BL's 42 different plant sites. Mr Griffin writes:
"British Leyland at Longbridge became a byword for wildcat walkouts, union militancy and industrial chaos." This was two years prior to the election of Mrs Thatcher's government, adding that: "The BL-style disruption had spread across the nation..."
According to the BBC: "...between 1978 and 1979 Mr Robinson was credited with causing 523 walk-outs at Longbridge, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production". That's about £800 million now, and seemingly BL's plant at Cowley, Oxford, had Trotskyite shop stewards considered more militant than Mr Robinson!
In 1977 the Government appointed Michael Edwardes as chief executive of this ailing car giant - at the time the world's fourth largest car manufacturer. Change of government, change of attitude to union strife and Mrs Thatcher gave Edwardes her full support (as well as that of MI5 it would appear). Mr Robinson was fired in November 1979 and the workforce got the message. A strike ballot opposing the dismissal was defeated by 14,000 votes to 600.
Never known to U-turn? Mrs Thatcher was far too pragmatic a politician for that and did so on more than one occasion and particularly when her hard monetarist stance after two years in office was taking a far heavier toll than had been predicted, hence Geoffrey Howe's change of tack in the 1981 Budget. And one must not forget that given a threatened miners' strike in 1981 Mrs Thatcher thought that the country was simply not sufficiently prepared and so bought them off but made ready for the next time. (Mr Scargill knew her game as well and balloted his members three times unsuccessfully for an all out strike before deciding to dispense with a ballot in 1984 when he got two-thirds support. He broke the law and the rest is history).
The vitriol from some sections of the Left on the death of Mrs Thatcher was disappointing if only to be expected. Some of the tributes were surprisingly warm like President Hollande's of France. One that is worth mentioning is that on 09 April by Wang Lili of the China People's Daily and Global Times offshoot. Ms Wang praises Mrs Thatcher for her part in the signing of the Joint Declaration for the handover of Hong Kong (negotiating with Deng Xiaoping was no easy matter especially given her rather poor hand), and recognises her resolve in defending the Falklands and goes on to say:
"...The complicated political environment in which she held her role, a golden era for politicians, made her outstanding..."
There follows some veiled criticism of tax cuts (for the rich and powerful), but she will enter the history books as a most distinctive female politician, however, there's a warning for the paper's Chinese readers:
"...After Thatcher left office, there haven't been any 'iron men' or 'iron ladies', partly because the decline in European power means they cannot uphold an iron stance. The evolution of Western electoral culture makes politicians weak at solving domestic problems."
I agree with Ms Wang in that Mrs T was never weak. There's a lot to think about in the rest of that statement.